Happy 2014!

It’s 2014! Happy New Year from the City That Never Sleeps.

Firework at New York harbor as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

New year firework at New York city harbor and Financial District as seen from Brooklyn bridge, shortly after new year on January 1, 2014. (Sophat Soeung)

And as a news-junkie, what a place to start the new year – the news never sleeps either! Just look at what happened in Cambodia on Day 2. Beyond Cambodia, it’s going to be an interesting year for ASEAN, with Myanmar chairing the regional grouping for the first time. Even in tech, 2014 does not look any less buzz-rich than last year with the expected and some unexpected trends.

After an eventful 2013, this new year promises to be an even more newsy year for Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and digital media. I will be trying to update this blog more often. So stay tuned!

Officials, Observers Optimistic About Burma’s First Asean Chairmanship

Original VOA piece by Sophat Soeung, 19 December 2013

Burmar's President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

Burmar’s President Thein Sein (L), chairman of the next ASEAN Summit, shakes hand with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah after receiving the ASEAN Gavel during the Closing Ceremony of the 23rd ASEAN Summit, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Oct. 10, 2013.

WASHINGTON — Burma will become the chair of Asean in January next year for the first time in its history. The Asean chairmanship follows recent political reforms and the lifting of sanctions by the international community. Both Burmese and Western officials now see the country’s readiness for a greater leadership role in the region.

Burma’s acceptance of the 2014 Asean chairmanship in a ceremony in Brunei in October marked a symbolic moment for the country’s increased regional standing.

On the eve of this chairmanship, officials and observers alike are hopeful that despite some challenges, the country’s first chairmanship will be a success.

Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser Thein Sein, the president of Burma, also known as Myanmar, told VOA Khmer that the greatest significance of this chairmanship is political legitimacy for the Burmese regime.

“We can show our leadership in the region, and we can show that we are a responsible member to Asean,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington in early December.

Burma joined Asean in 1997, along with Laos and one year ahead of Cambodia. But its isolation from the international community and image as a pariah state prevented it from hosting Asean in 2006.

Both Laos and Cambodia have previously chaired Asean. But Cambodia’s hopeful second chairmanship in 2012 was marred by a historic disagreement over the South China Sea, as a result of its close relationship with China and inability to manage increased Chinese tensions with some Asean members. Brunei’s chairmanship this year has been heralded as bringing Asean together again.

Like Cambodia and unlike Brunei, Burma is a non-claimant to the sea dispute.

But Ko Ko Hlaing said that unlike Cambodia, Burma is bigger and less dependent on China economically, while, conversely, China is more dependent on Burma’s strategic location.

Despite Burma’s close ties with its northern neighbor, it is not a “master and client relationship, and the Burmese government will avoid a repeat of what happened in Phnom Penh, he said. “We can take this position of the close relationship with China for the best interest of our region.”

While Burma is in a better position than Cambodia, navigating through increased US and Chinese geo-political rivalries may prove difficult nevertheless, said Christina Fink, a professor in international development studies at George Washington University and a long-time observer of Burma.

Despite all preparedness, recent escalating tensions in the region is cause for concern for the unexpected, she said.

“Myanmar is really kind of caught in between these big power players,” she said. “And it may be difficult for Myanmar to really be able to take leadership over how to handle these disputes within the framework of Asean meetings and the statements that they put out.”

The months leading into Burma’s chairmanship have seen increased tensions between China and Japan over a Chinese-declared air defense zone in the East China Sea.

Analysts are concerned those tensions will spread to the South China Sea, where tensions are already simmering between China and Asean members the Philippines and Vietnam.

During last week’s Japan-Asean anniversary summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged more loans to garner support from Southeast Asian leaders.

The effort followed a year of “blitz diplomacy” to all Asean countries that concluded with Abe’s trip to Cambodia and Laos, two countries seen as China’s closest allies in the region. The sea tensions also overshadowed US Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of Asia.

Scott Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told VOA Khmer recently that the US sees a “strong and unified Asean” as important for the region.

“We always like to see Asean working together, and we are very hopeful that under Myanmar’s chairmanship, that will happen,” he said.

The US will not impose its agendas on Asean and is generally satisfied with Burma’s recent reforms, he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Ko Ko Hlaing, who said Burma’s reforms have outpaced regional neighbors, raising hopes it can become one of the world’s “models of the democratic transition.”

Some analysts have indeed pointed to Burma’s unique circumstances as holding the promise of returning democratization to the top of Asean’s agenda.

However, human rights organizations say there are shortcomings in Burma’s transition, including ongoing rights abuses and violence against political dissidents, as well as Muslim and ethnic minorities.

Given how far the country has come, it deserves praise, Fink said. But Burma’s ambitions and the international community’s expectations should both be kept in check, she said, considering geopolitical realities and Burma’s own shortcomings.

“I don’t think that for their first chairmanship they need to aspire to really doing something transformative in Asean,” she said. “I think what is important for them is to keep things stable, keep things on track, bring people together in Asean. And if they can accomplish that they can be proud of that.”

Burmese Official Says Country’s Reforms Outpacing Neighbors

Original VOA piece by Kong Sothanarith and Sophat Soeung, December 6, 2013

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar's reforms.

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, Sunday, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar’s reforms that some of its official claim is outpacing its neighbors. (Sophat Soeung)

PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC – A senior adviser to the Burmese government says reforms in that country are outpacing Cambodia and other regional neighbors.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington, Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Burmese President Thein Sein, admitted that Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a “latecomer” to political reforms. But he said it is making gains.

“Even though Cambodia is now enjoying the political and democratic transition, but I think Myanmar is more open than Cambodia up to right now,” he told VOA Khmer. “So you can see in the media, and also the movement of the civil society and also the situation of free and fair elections in our bi-elections in 2012.”

Ou Virak, who is head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and who visited Burma in November, disagrees.

“Democracy in Cambodia is better, I think,” he told VOA Khmer. “But democracy is Cambodia is still grave.”

Burma, which has undertaken democratic reforms, including an election, is preparing to chair Asean in 2014. It has seen diplomatic improvements with regional countries and on the international stage, including with the US.

But Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told VOA Khmer that Cambodia has “genuine democracy,” pointing to gains at the polls by the opposition in July, despite opposition objections to what it says were fraudulent elections.

“We do not pretend to be a model of democracy, because each country has its own history and its own pace to attain it,” Khieu Kanharith said by text message. “But at least we don’t have civil war anymore.”

Ou Virak said that Burma’s elected officials are still a part of the military junta that has ruled the country for decades. And the media there suffer from the same ills as in Cambodia, he said. “TV and radio are still under strict measures, as in Cambodia,” he said.

Predicting Cambodia: Before and After a Historic Election

My research paper for the East-West Center's Asia-Pacific Bulletin about growing influence of social media on pre-election Cambodia.

My research paper for the East-West Center’s Asia-Pacific Bulletin about the growing influence of social media in pre-election Cambodia.

I have finally received a color copy of my first policy paper published by the East-West Center, a prominent U.S. education and research institution. This short research has greatly boosted my confidence in predicting and analyzing events in Cambodia.

In this paper, I primarily argued that on the eve of Cambodian fifth general elections, a number of new socio-political variables have entered Cambodian politics, including a merger of Hun Sen’s political opposition, a sudden and accidental political awareness of a new generation I termed “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers”, and a rise in nationalism that – unlike the 2008’s Preah Vihear drama – was more favorable to the opposition party’s anti-Vietnam campaign. Just months before the election, these new variables converged on the country’s exploding Facebook and other social media platforms, which are in themselves a significant variable. The growth pace of this “digital democracy” had kept it largely under the government’s radar.

Although (or because) published just days before the elections, the paper received only moderate publicity, except for the Bangkok Post. I was also too busy after the election to write a follow-up to it.

Nevertheless, I was among the first few observers who seemed to have fully grasped the changes in pre-election Cambodia. The points I laid out would later be confirmed by the election results and other Cambodia observers have since followed up on those social changes. It is a current hot topic among researchers and journalists and this latest piece in the Southeast Asia Globe could easily have been my own follow-up writing.

Predicting Cambodia is always interesting because the country must be one of the world’s most unpredictable. Due to its modern history and political ideology, Cambodia does not easily fit established political and social theories. New terms like “auto-genocide” and references like Phnom Penh’s 2012 “high-profile failure” over the South China Sea dispute had to be developed. July’s surprising general election also seemed to have put Cambodia closer to an Arab Spring than any other Southeast Asian country.

Well, these all make the job of guessing “what’s next?” in Cambodia all the more fun.

Social Media’s Growing Influence on Cambodian Politics

Note: This following analysis piece in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 222 is my first major policy publication. It is about Cambodia’s nascent ‘digital democracy’ that is emerging around this year’s national elections. The PDF version is available here.

ANALYSIS

Social Media’s Growing Influence on  Cambodian Politics 

By Sophat Soeung, July 23, 2013

One month before Cambodia’s general election scheduled for July 28, the government announced a directive banning local radio stations from airing foreign programs during the campaign and election period. The directive temporarily banned programs from Western broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language services. In response, the Cambodian public immediately turned to Facebook and other social media voicing their condemnation, followed by the US government and international media outlets, resulting in the government reversing the ban the next day. Both social media and the Internet are increasingly changing the dynamics of election politics worldwide, especially in countries with a high youth-bulge, and Cambodia is no exception to this trend.

Observers widely agree that the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) will win the election, returning incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen to power, a position he has held since 1985. As in its 2008 landslide victory, the CPP continues to maintain strong rural support, while presiding over rapid economic growth and maintaining a tight grip on the country’s media. However, social changes–including social media–over the past five years, along with political changes, will likely ensure that the CPP is short of its earlier landslide win.

An example of political change is that the two main opposition parties merged into one party, the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the leadership of Sam Rainsy, who has now returned from self-imposed exile in France to join his deputy, Kem Sokha, also a seasoned politician, for last-minute campaigning. In addition, the CPP is less able to use nationalism to attract the votes of the “post-Khmer Rouge baby-boomers”–those born after 1979–who are 36 percent of registered voters. It is this demographic that presents the single greatest opportunity for the opposition, a cohort that uses the Internet and social media rather than state-controlled media as an important source of news.

Social media, especially Facebook, is a recent phenomenon in Cambodia and to date has not been subject to governmental controls. Government figures show that from 2010 to 2012, Internet penetration in Cambodia jumped from one percent to nearly 20 percent, partly due to the proliferation of mobile devices. Facebook has emerged as the most popular platform and has registered over 900,000 users, including social-media savvy members of the opposition.

Even before opposition politicians began utilizing social media tools, civil society and human rights groups were already using them amidst Cambodia’s otherwise highly restricted media climate. Activists opposing Phnom Penh’s controversial Boeung Kak lake development project, in particular, utilize social media to gain public attention in a city with high Internet penetration. Videos of their protests have gained a lot of traction in local and foreign media and won them international recognition. Facebook has evolved from primarily an entertainment website to an alternative news source and platform for self-expression, and a way to bypass the state-controlled one-sided views on radio and television.

A small–and possibly staged–pro-government protest at the Cambodian Mekong University in May could be a watershed in Cambodian politics. This was an incident where protesters criticized visiting UN Human Rights envoy Surya Subedi regarding his negative report on human rights violations in Cambodia. Just two months before the election, the protest attracted an unprecedented youth reaction online–an “anti-protest” to the protesters. For the first time many young Cambodians showed interest in a political issue and freely expressed their views. Some uploaded personal videos criticizing the protest against Subedi that they considered unrepresentative of their views. One day after the online “anti-protest” reaction, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) issued an appeal for social media users to refrain from spreading misinformation.

The NEC’s call for public caution could help expand the impact of social media in Cambodian politics, a trend that some claim is already irreversible. CNRP opposition leader Sam Rainsy and others started their online election campaign to attract young voters well ahead of official campaign season. By June, Rainsy had claimed “victory” over Hun Sen for Facebook popularity. Not long after that declaration, Hun Sen’s Facebook page began posting more regular updates, often responding directly to issues raised by the opposition. Needless to say, the online campaign has allowed the opposition to bring up issues of interest to young voters–human rights, social justice, corruption, education, and unemployment. Online at least, the election process seems free and fair.

The impact of social media for now, however, is extremely limited in rural areas–the traditional electoral base of the CPP. Rural Cambodians primarily rely on state-controlled radio and television for news and information. Perhaps for this reason, the Internet in Cambodia has remained uncensored, which some proudly call “digital democracy.” On the same day as the NEC statement, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said his government does not plan to shut down Facebook, but warned that “improper” content might be met with lawsuits. Over time, as the Internet expands into rural areas, social media will likely become more vulnerable to government censorship, especially under a CPP administration.

Irrespective of the upcoming election results, social media has created a nascent and more pluralistic online political environment where Cambodians exchange different political viewpoints freely. These are significant emerging trends that will impact youth political behavior beyond the July elections. Cambodia is following other Southeast Asian states in this trend, most recently witnessed in Malaysia’s closely fought May election.

Looking ahead, the international community, ASEAN democracies, and the US government should further invest in Cambodia’s emerging digital democracy and ensure that the Internet remains free. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh is to be commended for its many pioneering projects with youth and civil society–from blogging, to technology conferences and communications innovation. These initiatives have, however, done little to open up state-controlled traditional media to other political groups–something that the international community should continue advocating for. As freedom of expression continues to shrink off-line in Cambodia, it looks as if the role of digital democracy via social media will only increase in this election process. Furthermore, for Cambodia’s increasingly outspoken younger generation, online democracy may well hold the promise of off-line change beyond July’s election.

About the Author

Sophat Soeung is a Research Fellow with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C.